The pro-Trump mob pushed through barricades and climbed walls, smashed windows and carried away mementos of their invasion. They jostled through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, pressed together shoulder to shoulder, shouting and talking and laughing. And they did it all largely without masks during the deadliest pandemic in a century.
When insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, they may well have carried with them invisible weapons as dangerous as the firearms confiscated by officials. That day, the United States once again set a new record for both Covid-19 cases and deaths. Yet few of the dissenters took the precautions known to protect against the coronavirus. Instead, they attended rallies where they were exhorted to give hugs to strangers, they invaded a federal building and pushed lawmakers into dangerously close quarters, and then they decamped—many maskless—to hotels, restaurants, and shops in the Washington, D.C., area.
“They were all superspreader events,” Dr. Terrence Mulligan, an emergency physician and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told me. “Putting these congressmen and congresswomen in the rooms together, they were putting them at risk.” As rioters pounded on the windows on the legislative chambers, hundreds of lawmakers and staff were evacuated to a safe location, where social distancing was difficult and about half of the evacuees reportedly refused to wear masks themselves. After the curfew imposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser took effect, out-of-towners gathered in hotel lobbies, largely mask-free, despite the city’s months-long mask mandate. The staff at the Capitol was left to clear the rubble—apparently with no personal protective gear beyond masks—while maskless guards stood by.
Superspreader events such as the White House clusters and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August contributed to significant spikes in infections across the country. Now, more people than ever in the U.S. are carrying the virus, including the more transmissible variant, yet it’s very difficult to know who might have the virus because of asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic spread. The physicality of Wednesday’s mob further escalated the risk. “Shouting and yelling and huffing and puffing and climbing walls and getting into buildings, that increases the spread as well,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association and the former health commissioner of Washington, D.C., told me.
This doesn’t just put those who were at the rallies and the Capitol at risk—visitors could spread the virus throughout the city, and others could take it home to their families and communities. “We’re just seeing the spike from Thanksgiving, we’re anticipating a spike from Christmas, and we may now see a spike from this,” Benjamin said. Already, the events have affected D.C.’s Covid response. Bowser also announced on Wednesday that, along with the 6 p.m. curfew, public testing sites would close.
The nation’s capital is no stranger to rallies and protests. But in the Black Lives Matter marches over the summer, for instance, most of the protesters wore masks and tried to keep a distance from each other, during a time when Covid-19 cases were much lower than they are now. All of these factors contributed to the events having no discernible effect on Covid-19 transmission. And the protesters asserted that their health was threatened by excessive police violence, a threat greater than the virus. “None of us condone people walking around those groups not wearing a mask. And we were very concerned about them,” Benjamin said of BLM protesters. “But these folks that were protesting felt that their lives were at risk from police violence and inappropriate police actions. And so the intellectual trade-off they were making was the risk of the virus was less than the risk of them protesting because of the potential risk of what was happening in policing. So there’s not a comparison with that at all. This,” he said, pivoting to the Capitol mob, “is a very different situation. This was discretionary; they did not have to be here. They did not have to do what they did.”
The near-certain Covid cases and deaths from Wednesday’s events will join hundreds of thousands of other preventable deaths and long-term illnesses that could have been avoided by strengthening public health systems like testing and contract tracing. Providers struggle with that knowledge, Mulligan said. “It’s bad enough when people have diseases that we don’t know how to treat or cure or prevent,” he said. “But it’s worse if it’s preventable.”
Thousands of people convening in a city without precautions like masks and distancing is likely to put a strain on health departments and hospitals, inside and outside D.C. “The contact tracing on this is going to be difficult and messy,” Benjamin said. “To the extent more people get sick, it’s going to force our hospital system to handle it because, as we know, we’re having significant problems with hospital overload in certain parts of our country.” He called it “an additional burden” on top of the other costs of the destruction that taxpayers will need to cover after the D.C. siege. “Those dollars could’ve easily gone to health care, for heart disease, for cancer, for Covid. Again, it’s just so distressing and irresponsible.”
In retrospect, the maskless rampage is the end result of politicizing health. When political leaders depicted mask-wearing as a political act and publicly downplayed the risks of the virus, it became much more difficult to communicate the dangers posed to everyone, regardless of political affiliation, experts said. “It’s one thing if you are telling somebody they should believe that this is a public health risk because of the science,” Mulligan said. “And it’s another thing if you’re telling them they should believe this public health risk because of your politics or their perception of your politics. So now, in order to believe that corona is a risk, they also have to believe that their other political beliefs are false.”
Although the politicization of the pandemic is a unique moment in history, it points to the steady erosion of expertise over the past few years. “People have been given permission to dismiss experts, or dismiss science or conclusions that are at odds with what they really want,” Mulligan said. “If somebody who has authority gives you permission to just trust your gut, go with what you know … when a leader gives you that permission, you do it.” But, he points out, we don’t trust our gut instinct when we’re building bridges or engineering car brakes. “Why would you go with your gut when you’re learning about viral pathogens?”
Much like the Capitol incursion itself, the dismissal of expertise can be laid at President Trump’s feet. On Wednesday, many were left marveling over not just the damage to constitutional norms and national landmarks but the needless deaths—one woman shot and killed and three others dead from unspecified medical emergencies. The horrifying reality is that the true death toll won’t be known for weeks, if ever.